I first came across Sheila Heti during a phase in which I believed Lena Dunham had the answers to everything and was gradually dispensing them through the medium of Twitter. Dunham recommended Heti’s second novel, How Should a Person Be?, as a “metafiction-meets-nonfiction novel” with “a lot of the same concerns as Girls.’’
Suitably intrigued, I wrote to Heti and asked for an interview. By the time the interview rolled around – nearly six months later – I had stopped treating Lena’s feed as a vending machine of wisdom, but the momentum of Heti’s novel had not waned. The prospect of the book’s UK release on January 24th has prompted a slew of reviews and discussion pieces in the British press to rival the critical rumblings already occurring Stateside. While trying to access the New Yorker’s review of the book on my phone last Thursday, I looked across the train to see a man reading a full page on Heti in the Metro.
Two of the most controversial aspects of the book have been the promise of its tagline, “A novel from life,” and the notion that this, whatever it is, represents some sort of new form or type of fiction. Heti recorded conversations between herself and her circle of artist and filmmaker friends on tape recorders, and her book includes transcripts, emails and lists. Though parts are, she says, “fictional”, the work is essentially an autobiography of the artist’s day to day life and social circle since she started the project in 2005.
The Metro’s headline for their review of How Should a Person Be?, “It’s not such a novel idea”, argues against the idea that Heti’s style is in any way new (they even included a helpful box with other examples of writers who wrote “from life”). Yet when I spoke to Heti she seemed under no illusions of originality: “All literature is from life,” she acknowledged, but her method of collecting her material, a method she calls “journalistic,” is what she considers new and “very important” to her writing.
When I ask why she wanted to record her friends and write her book in this journalistic manner, she replied, “So that I didn’t have to be in my apartment all alone while I was writing!” Other friends were documenting the group around the same time: Margaux Williamson, Heti’s best friend in the novel, was making a film, while an artist friend was painting them.
This reveals a key feature of Heti’s life and writing: her desire to make the two almost indistinguishable. When asked whether she had any advice for those wanting to pursue a career in the arts, Heti told me, “I don’t think that thinking of it as a career is beneficial. You expect success and income – you have to go into it expecting none of those things. I think you have to make art all of your life, make it touch every other part of your life, rather than just be this separate thing you go to your desk and do. If you do this, then really all of your feelings and thoughts and experiences go into the art.”
Sheila Heti, and women like Miranda July and Lena Dunham, are achieving a level of critical attention that suggests that the male dominated media and literary world could be changing. When I asked Heti why she thought this could be, she replied: “There haven’t been that many generations where the conditions of life have made it possible for woman to write. At the moment there is more freedom in general to be a woman writer.”
Yet even those with the time and money to write have still struggled: “I remember when I was a teenager it was quite acceptable for people to say ‘I don’t read female writers’ and many people did say that. It’s hard to imagine saying that anymore.” In the prologue of How Should a Person Be? Heti writes, “One good thing about being a woman is that we haven’t got too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me.” She’s being characteristically flippant, but she also makes an important point about the opportunities now open to women authors.
While it’s depressing that only now, nearly one hundred years after Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, are we free of the kind of people who “don’t read female writers,” there is an excitement in finding the geniuses previously ignored or dismissed by the world as authors of ‘Chick Lit’. Maybe Lena Dunham’s Twitter feed wasn’t such a bad place to look for the answers.